Quick. What do you identify with? What groups do you belong to? And who do you feel attacked by? Who do you prepare to do battle with?
Most of us have these categories in play somewhere in the background of our everyday awareness. White, black, progressive, conservative, American, Canadian, pro-life, pro-choice. Maybe it’s none of those, and you identify more with your family. Or your church. Or your town. Or your country. Or your team. Or just the way things used to be.
There’s this crazy idea the mystics have that we are spirit having a human experience. Notice the singular: spirit? There’s this mystery of multiplicity-in-unity and unity-in-multiplicity. Beneath the surface veneer we’re drinking from the same well, animated by the same source.
Call it the divine spark. Call it the image of God.
So often we use the word faith to mean my group, it’s my identification. It means I’m part of this religious group. That’s my faith. And I’ll defend it to the hilt. I’ll argue for it. I’ll die for it. I identify with it. It’s me.
Of course faith in the truest sense means much more than our faith tradition. That’s a shared story. It’s a set of concepts we adopt. It’s a cultural narrative. And we can cling to a cultural narrative about our religious affiliation. Or we can cling to any other cultural narrative.
But all that is rooted in ego. In our unconscious need to feel bigger than we are, to transcend our little selves. To feel stronger, to feel certain, to feel right. We want to consolidate an ego identity. Name. Rank. Church. Party. Country. That’s me. Don’t mess with it. Or else.
Our ego wants us to think in hierarchies. How else can we be part of a dominant group?
Strangely the way of Christ as the mystics understand it is an unraveling of the ego. Letting go of hierarchies. It takes a series of humiliations to the false self, as Father Keating puts it. It’s a way of seeing who we truly are and how we’re part of the greater whole, even though we build up walls, divisions, and conflicts in our minds. The very path meant to heal becomes a seed of violence if we turn it into a thing and cling to it.
Faith aligned with Christ – that is, surrender – transcends all the little stuff, all the little divisions and categories.
Of course we still have to pick a place to live, still have to vote, raise kids, pick a school. Still have to chop wood and carry water. But that’s all on the transient, relative plane of awareness. We don’t cling too tightly to any of it. Don’t turn it into an ego trip.
At the higher levels of awareness, we identify with it all. That’s the whole game in the gospels. Identify with all of them.
That’s incarnation. That’s Christlikeness. Identify with the whole scope of human beauty and atrocity, from a shooting in Baltimore to the Sistine Chapel. It’s all us. A late middle aged black woman with arthritis who hates the Red Sox. That’s me on some deeper level. A lesbian hairdresser from Manitoba who likes Jane Austen novels. Me, too. An old white banker who likes his face in the mirror and funds nationalist groups in his spare time. Me, too. In various shades. At different levels of maturity, growth, and awareness. Various levels of distortion. Each with their own ego mechanisms at work.
The limited ego is our defense mechanism we build in childhood. It’s a part of growing up. We all have it. But truly growing up means recognizing it and learning how let it go. It means seeing through the surface for ourselves. And then seeing through the surfaces for others.
Growing up takes time. Sometimes it’s a letting go. Sometimes it’s a stripping away. But how different things would be if more of us could see this bigger picture, could identify with all of them.
It takes some rigorous work. We have to examine our unconscious assumptions about ourselves, the world, our relationship to it. We have to take a look at the conditioning we still have that is toxic, that is “anti-Christ.”
Not a demon out there we need to prepare for with provisions in the basement, a bomb shelter, a shot gun.
A demon in here who wants to have its desires fulfilled, and needs to find enemies to eliminate to get there.
I’m convinced some of us are born a little closer to the goal than others, but for all of us it takes some dying to learn to love, to loosen our grip on the things we identify with, to drop the bricks we build our walls with.
And for most of us it takes a daily discipline to allow ourselves to be pulled in, to be moved into a greater grace. May we learn how to surrender to it.